A lawsuit and motion for preliminary injunction filed on Oct. 1 by five Skamania County business owners challenging Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s lingering COVID-19 restrictions couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment — for Inslee.
Scarcely a week earlier, a federal judge in Pennsylvania threw out a list of similar regulations imposed by Gov. Tom Wolf, declaring, “The liberties protected by the Constitution are not fair-weather freedoms — in place when times are good but able to be cast aside in times of trouble.”
This was followed a few days later by news the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had calculated the nationwide survival rate for those afflicted with the COVID virus at about 99 percent — including a rate of 94.6 percent for Americans over 70, thought to be among the most vulnerable to the disease.
Finally, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took into account all the recent developments and lifted all COVID-related restrictions on the state’s businesses. Individuals and corporations may voluntarily continue to require masks and social distancing, but residents are now permitted to use their own better judgment.
“Gov. Inslee’s draconian response has been disproportionate to the threats caused by COVID-19,” said Caleb Jon Vandenbos, a litigation attorney with the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation, which is representing the complainants.
On July 7, Inslee issued a proclamation requiring all Washington businesses to refuse service to customers not wearing a mask. Meanwhile, only one resident in Skamania County has died of the virus and there are only five active cases.
“While the number of confirmed cases has increased due to increased testing,” the suit explains, “the mortality rate has decreased dramatically, from 4.5 percent from March 15 through June 15, to 1.5 percent from June 15 through Sept. 15, the date of most recent confirmed data.”
The fatality rate will continue to drop as more tests are performed.
“Nothing about COVID-19 has been extraordinary except the panicked and panic-inducing response from the government and the media,” Vandenbos noted. “And, of course, the unprecedented strain this over-reaction has placed on thousands of Washington families and individuals.”
Skamania County, he explained, is home to 12,083 people spread out over 1,683 square miles. Aside from a few towns, each with populations at around 2,000 individuals and under, the county is inhabited mostly by trees and wildlife.
“Even if the governor’s heavy-handed response made sense in other parts of the state, it’s absolutely inappropriate in a rural community like Skamania County,” Vandenbos said.
“Only 65 residents of the county have even contracted the contagion, and only one case resulted in a fatality,” he continued. “The federal and state constitutions do not permit a one-size-fits-all approach when the government seeks to limit deep and basic rights.”
“Inslee is setting a dangerous precedent,” Vandenbos said. “The state Constitution does not permit the governor broad and intrusive powers based on something as unspecified as, for example, the health concerns associated with an influenza contagion.”
A state of emergency based on such vague health risks could last potentially for years.
“Most fundamentally of all, Gov. Inslee doesn’t have the constitutional authority to force people to live their lives behind a mask,” said Aaron Withe, national director for the Freedom Foundation. “Mandating mask wearing violates our rights to free speech because it sends the message that individuals agree with the governor’s opinion; meanwhile, when business owners don’t require their customers to wear a mask, it communicates their dissent from the state’s preferred narrative.”
The suit, filed in Skamania County Superior Court against Gov. Inslee and the Department of Labor and Industries, seeks an injunction preventing the agency from enforcing the order against the businesses filing the action, a declaratory judgment affirming that the governor’s COVID regulations in the county are excessive as applied there and unspecified damages to the business owners who suffered because of them.